GREEN CARS


Best Values in Clean Cars

Just months ago, Leigh Steinberg was cruising the streets of Southern California in a gas-guzzling Mercedes SUV. Now he drives a Lexus hybrid.

For this superstar sports agent -- widely considered to be the model for Jerry Maguire -- buying a Lexus RX 400h was a symbol of his conversion to environmental activism. In fact, he has a team working on "an ambitious program to 'green up' sports," he says. It includes running stadium scoreboards on solar power, installing water collectors to irrigate playing surfaces and, perhaps most important, persuading athletes who drive Hummers and Escalades to ditch the brawny bling and be better environmental role models. He's even working on a hedge fund to finance it all.

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As for the Lexus, he says, "having a hybrid is a statement, but it's not much of a sacrifice -- I'm able to drive a luxury car with high performance and luxury amenities that saves considerable amounts of energy. Why not do it?"

With the number of hybrids on U.S. roads approaching the one-million mark, it's clear that many people have come to a similar conclusion. Sales of the Toyota Prius soared this year as the company ramped up production and even offered cash-back incentives. Saving energy has gained traction with policymakers, too. Congress is struggling to reach a consensus on the first increase in car fuel-efficiency standards in two decades.

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Automakers, however, are less than enthusiastic about higher fuel-economy standards, having spent the past 20 years increasing the size and weight of vehicles while treading water on miles per gallon. "The problem with the global auto industry is that it's using little Band-Aids on the technology to mitigate the increasing size and horsepower of vehicles," says Brad Berman, editor of HybridCars.com.

The industry's strategy thus far has been to push a limited number of high-tech alternative-energy vehicles rather than putting all cars, trucks and SUVs on a fuel-economy-boosting diet. Companies have spent a fortune developing hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles, which reduce tailpipe emissions to water. But without a network to create and distribute hydrogen fuel, such vehicles are still years away. Many automakers have added hybrids to their arsenals, and hopes are high for clean-diesel, ethanol and electric vehicles. Trouble is, the variety of technologies can be confusing, and the real contribution these vehicles will make to a better environment is not always clear.

We've worked to decipher the bottom line for the environment and your wallet. See our Earth-Friendly Autos Scorecard to learn how 14 models measure up.


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